Published in 1989, the book Cultura Popular na Antiguidade Clássica (São Paulo: Contexto), by Pedro Paulo A. Funari, today Professor at the University of Campinas, had in its time an unusual impact. Breaking with the elitism until then characteristic of the discipline, the book became a landmark in the renovation of Ancient History in Brazil, at the moment of the country's re-democratization, and at a decisive turning point in the constitution of a specifically Brazilian tradition of study about subaltern groups in Antiquity. In September 2019, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the book's publication, we conducted this interview with the author about the context of the work's publication, its format, and the current perspective of studies on subaltern groups in antiquity.
The book Cultura Popular na Antiguidade Clássica was published in 1989. What was the situation of classical studies at that time and how did the book dialogue with these studies? Did the process of redemocratization that Brazil was going through have any influence on the writing of the book? If yes, in what way?
In 1989 Brazil was coming out of the dictatorial period and even the world was in transformation, let's say, with the opening, with Perestroika, Glasnost in the Soviet Union that would put an end to the system. So it was a very specific moment of struggles for freedom in the world in general and particularly in Latin America and Brazil. So this was an important aspect of the political context for me to look into the theme. Classical studies, ancient history, were very conservative up to that time. So it seems to me that the influx coming from related areas, mainly from other historical periods, was determinant because we already had [books on the] popular culture in the Middle Ages, popular culture in the Early Modern Age published by other authors from abroad, so my initiative was more in this context of if they are proposing to study this in other historical periods, a study on Antiquity should be done. So, that was how I arrived at it, and at the same time in connection with Brazilian politics, certainly with this question of the fight for democratization in which I had already participated in a series of other academic, university actions since the beginning of the 1980s.
To present and discuss the theme of popular culture in Antiquity, something new in that time, you chose the format of the short introductions for the general public. Can you tell us more about the reason for this choice, as well as the reception it had in academia?
I think the question of the format, first of all, depends a little bit on my propensities. I like it, I have always liked to reach a broad public, mainly the students, undergraduate, graduate, and the general educated public. So, I guess this has a personal side, but there is also an important social side, which was the fact that in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in the 1980s, we had a generalization of the collections of scientific dissemination in general, but especially in the Human Sciences: collections such as Tudo é História (“Everything is History”), Princípios (“Principles”), the Contexto Publisher's collection that was being launched, that is, they aimed at making high school students, what today would be high school, have access to and deepen their knowledge about everything, particularly in the Human Sciences and in History, more specifically. So, I was in a very concrete historical context, so to speak, which was this idea that Brazilian authors should, could, produce books for the university public and especially for the high school public and, at the same time, because I thought it was relevant because a person must have, in a few pages, an introduction to a theme. This is because, to get to a more in-depth book, it will require further reading. So there has to be an introduction, I always thought that this was an important thing.
The book Cultura Popular na Antiguidade Clássica does not enunciate a closed definition of what popular culture would be. However, we can trace some conceptual hints such as the notion that popular culture is not a reflection of erudite culture and that both popular and erudite culture have internal contradictions and must be understood in their intrinsic and particular characteristics. As far as sources are concerned, the book resorts mainly to graffiti as a way to understand popular culture. Since then, has your vision about the concept changed? And what other documents and resources would we have to study subaltern groups besides graffiti?
I think the idea that I was developing at that time was very important, which was that of the specificity of popular culture. [Popular culture is] not simply an imitation, a mimesis, of erudite culture, as it was a tendency, which is a more or less natural tendency [to think] that the people always follow in some way the erudite or the dominant. So, [contesting] this was an idea that I think was already there, was already well disseminated and that I applied and still consider very valid. Then, still in this same line, [the question] “why the graffiti?” is linked to the fact that [the graffito] is a direct production, I mean, not necessarily of the people, of the simplest people (because we don't know to what extent a person writing on the wall, a person would be simple; I know that there would be many people who would be illiterate, most certainly, who didn't write), but anyway, they were people who wrote in a language very different from the erudite one, so it is a direct access to a symbolic aspect, subjective aspect, which is the information of what people wrote outside the scope of the local elite. So this is one objective. The second characteristic of this source, and that connects me to your third question, which is the question of what I think has already been done, what can be done, is the fact of using material culture. I mean that the graffiti, by a fortune, by chance, have been very well preserved in Pompeii, so we have a lot of information that we no longer have in other places. So, it is a direct information that did not pass through the sieve of the medieval copyists of the textual tradition. So what has been done, what has been proposed, and I think it has a very big future, is the study of the subaltern classes based on material evidence. In the past, until recently, excavations were very much centred on the great monuments, on the great statuary, and I think that the instrumentum domesticum, which are all those objects of daily use such as bricks, tiles, amphorae, and also agricultural buildings are there to be studied not only from the typological point of view, as is often done, but can also be used from the sociological point of view, from the social point of view. So, for instance, where did the slaves live? They lived together with their masters, in the same house, but where exactly in the house? And things like this. I think that there is a field that is already developing and that has a very big perspective, because the archaeologist now, the historian, is observing evidence that previously went unnoticed.
How do you see the studies in Ancient History about subaltern groups nowadays?
Nowadays, I believe that there has been a great growth in this field. If before [such kind of studies] were concentrated mainly in later periods, as I said before, the end of the Middle Ages, the Early Modern era, and then in the Contemporary age, for which the evidence about popular culture is superabundant, with regard to Antiquity, because of the difficulty of access and the tradition of studying through erudite sources, literary sources, literary tradition, textual tradition, I think that this took a while to develop, but today we have a very large development in the world. I mean, in several countries and traditions this has been developed mainly through new approaches. Besides original sources such as graffiti and, as I said, material culture, [there has] also [been] new approaches, [such as] reading against the grain of the written sources. Now in Brazil specifically, I think that this field is exceptional for the fact that it has found a fertile ground. I think that the fertile ground here are the contradictions of Brazilian society, that is, as we live in conflicting situations (Brazil is one of the most unequal societies in the world) so it means that you have a fertile ground for reflection on the subaltern as in India as well, in another context and maybe a little different because India is not so strongly linked to the classical tradition. But in our case I think this has allowed a very big development and I am very optimistic because I see in many young people interest for the theme without neglecting the literary tradition, without neglecting the erudite knowledge, but also approaching the most humble.
Video and interview: Juliana Marques Morais, Nara Oliveira and Pedro Benedetti.
Narration: Juliana Marques Morais
Edition: Nara Oliveira.
Translation: Jessica Brustolim.